Facebook announced last Thursday that they have changed their brand name to Meta, all part of their move towards the “next chapter” of the internet – a virtual reality universe that you can do anything and everything in. Your animated avatar will be able to change clothes and mimic your facial expressions. You will even be able to feel things, thanks to a new magnetic material called ReSkin. You can work in the virtual office, from home. Just put on a headset (eventually just glasses) and voila! A virtual world to distract from the real one.Facebook, which already holds so much power over us and our social lives, will potentially have access to even more of our data and control over even more of our well-being. Yet, despite all the whistles that have been blown, technology keeps advancing and we keep allowing it, eager for the next advancement, hoping this one will finally make us happy. We hope that maybe the glitches in the other ones, those features that made us jealous and depressed and distracted and anxious and lonely — maybe all those little kinks will be worked out. After all, as Zuckerberg said on Thursday, the metaverse is going to be all about “presence,” and after all, isn’t that what we all want? Real, authentic connection?
Research has shown, time and time again, that despite the many advantages technology has brought, modern inventions like email and social media have had dire effects on our mental health. Our attention spans are shorter, polarization is higher than ever, misinformation is rampant, rates of depression and anxiety are climbing and people find themselves addicted to certain platforms, unable to stop scrolling mindlessly, despite their best efforts.
I have experienced all of these symptoms myself. I wake up every morning, reach for my phone to turn off my alarm, and then usually, when I am not quite ready to lift myself out of bed, I find myself checking my messages … then my email … then all of my social media apps … And as I lay there scrolling, eyes still groggy, time slipping away from me, I think to myself, “This can’t be how we are supposed to live.” Maybe this is something we all feel. A sense that, although helpful, although enticing, although so integrated into our lives, technology might be slowly destroying us.
If a perfect metaverse is just a second away, why would anyone want to spend time in the real universe? Why would we bother saving the Earth if we can just improve technology instead? Why bother leaving your house at all? The world is messy and disappointing and imperfect and tragic. The people you meet can be frustrating and cruel and confusing. Danger abounds.
But, so does serendipity. So does spontaneity. So does wonder. Just last Saturday, while kids were out trick or treating, we saw a beaver — yes, a beaver — flopping through our backyard. Parents and children carrying buckets of candy and dressed in costumes all stood around and watched as we tried to get the beaver across the road. The whole thing was strange and inexplicable and fascinating — I couldn’t have made it up if I had wanted to, and I don’t think an algorithm ever could, no matter how advanced.
We can no longer assume the benefits of technology outweigh the consequences. We need to take a serious and critical look at our relationship with technology, both as individuals and collectively. We probably won’t like what we will find — I know I won’t. But a virtual reality universe doesn’t feel like progress to me. It feels like a tipping point.